After having season tickets for 15 years, and sitting through three years of countless blowout losses, you can color me a skeptic.
And it's hard not to be. Despite the front I've often put on here on this site, I think I've had an undercurrent of stink eye aimed at the program.
But, at this very moment, let me be honest: Steve Pikiell is pulling that skepticism right out of me and throwing it in the garbage.
Because every single move Pikiell has made from the moment he accepted the job has been the right one. Every move has elevated the program from the dregs to an actual basketball program. Along with athletic director (and college basketball fan) Pat Hobbs, Pikiell has made it look like Rutgers actually cares about hoops. It's not just about football anymore.
And that attitude is going to pay dividends.
Look at the moves he's made so far: He landed the top remaining New Jersey player, Matt Bullock. By all accounts, Bullock is a grinder, scorer and winner without a position. And while no other major programs have offered him, Bullock is tied to Roselle Catholic, one of the basketball powerhouses in the state. Pikiell immediately began to immerse himself, and Rutgers, back into Jersey basketball.
He then hired Karl Hobbs as his associate head coach. Hobbs, along with Pikiell, gave George Washington some of the best years its ever had. Hobbs was a big time recruiter at UConn before that, and is credited in developing Ray Allen into a pro. Hobbs and Pikiell will certainly be on the same page. One of the biggest problems Rutgers coaches have had in their time on the banks is adjusting to the jump from mid-major to power conference and being able to handle different kinds of egos. Hobbs has done that time and time again and can advise Pikiell on how to deal with these kinds of players to lead them to success.
The next night, on WFAN, Pikiell let it slip that he expects Rutgers to break ground on a practice facility this summer.
Pikiell also brought his old Stony Brook associate head coach with him. Jay Young was the defensive guru at Stony Brook. His game planning should certainly help the Scarlet Knights upend some foes unexpectedly. And while no one is sure how well he can recruit at the high major level, he was able to develop Jameel Warney into a possible NBA draft pick.
And finally, last night, Pikiell made the power move. The common school of thought, with one spot left on the staff, was this: Pikiell was going to try and hit the home run and land Brandin Knight--a top assistant. One with some great recruiting potential. If Knight passed, as has so often happened in Rutgers' past, Pikes would have kept Greg Shoes Vetrone, a good recruiter in his own right.
But that's not what happened.
No, last night, Pikiell landed Knight, and was able to keep Shoes on staff as well. Basically, not just a home run, but a grand slam. Look at it this way: When Mike Rice was hired, he tried to steal Knight and promote him to the top assistant role at Rutgers. Knight turned Rice, his former colleague down. But PIkiell got him.
Big time move.
And Knight isn't just a recruiter. He's credited for developing some of the best guards in recent Pitt history.
Can we see a pattern with this coaching staff?
Not only are they solid recruiters in Hobbs and Knight, but they can only develop players. Make them better. Pikeill is proving he both isn't stupid, and that he's not going to fall into the same trap so many other Rutgers coaches have before. This staff isn't built to land 5 star one and done players. It's built to land the next rung of guys, the Top 50-150 players, and over the next few years, turn them into studs on the court.
Pikiell is going to build Rutgers from the ground up like Ben Howland built Pittsburgh. How Jay Wright has kept Villanova afloat. When Rutgers gets good, it's going to be on the backs of very good four year players who have grown from notable recruits to superstar seniors.
And that has me very excited.
Yes, the old axiom seems true so far. They are winning the offseason. But for the first time, it feels like Rutgers cares about basketball. That they are going to grow the program.
This staff is turning heads. It's going to make AAU and high school coaches notice Rutgers. And, if they start building the facility I've begged for? Then you'll know things are truly changing. Pat Hobbs and Steve Pikiell care. And they're starting to make it look like Rutgers cares.
Now, this is Rutgers and it can all blow up in our faces--but this is a good day.
It's caught my eye. I'm energized again.
The skepticism is seeping out of me.
The next step comes now. The open recruiting period. How does Rutgers fill out the rest of its roster? It's likely Issa Thiam stays on board now. Will Rutgers look to the graduate transfer route? Who were Hobbs and Knight recruiting before they hopped on over to the Scarlet side?
Keep building. Keep believing.
I'm all in now, PIkiell.
Brighter days appears to be ahead of us. Call me, ticket guy. I'm ready to re-up.
Dave White is the author of the Jackson Donne series of thrillers. Check them out at his website. Already read the books? Leave a review for Not Even Past or, the latest, An Empty Hell.